This is Sheikh Jarrah, a small neighborhood in East Jerusalem that has become a hotbed of unrest over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We visited Sheikh Jarrah last week while on a tour of East Jerusalem, conducted by ACRI, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. I won’t go into the history of the conflict in Sheikh Jarrah because it is so nuanced and controversial, but see the Wikipedia entry on the neighborhood for more detail. Also of interest might be the website of the Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity Movement, an organization of Jews and Arabs alike who protest against Jewish settlement in the neighborhood weekly. Of these protesters includes a man by the name of David Grossman, a very famous Israeli novelist whose son died in the 2006 war in Lebanon.
Anyway, I present this information and the video below, made by human rights group B’Tselem in collaboration with The Guardian, because I think it is a very good representation of the conflict and how it affects daily life. Take a look at the video and make up your own mind as to who is in the right and who in the wrong; there are many sides to this issue, as with all issues here.
It’s all about how you see it. To some, the way to deal with the “Palestinian problem” is to wall the problem off, to have the Palestinian people “deal with themselves.” Part of this justification comes from security. Because terrorist attacks inside Israel proper have all but stopped since the erection of the Security Barrier, the facts on the ground speak for themselves. Segregation is necessary to protect Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.
But to others, this is a false solution. To build a giant barrier in order to pretend that the problems on the other side do not exist is not acceptable. To forcibly enclose Palestinians inside a concrete barrier, in a place where living conditions are substandard at best, third-world at worst, is no better than what the Nazis did to the Jews in Warsaw, Lodz, Auschwitz.
So what, the other side would respond. Israel must concern itself with its own security first. Israel certainly has no obligation to support the Palestinians, the very people who are trying to kill us! Why should we care that they are incapable of building a viable state? It’s their own ineptitude and greed which leaves them in such a position.
The answer, the other side would respond, is two-fold. Number one, Israel is an occupying power. Regardless of the religious argument that Eretz Yisrael includes Judea and Samaria, and the entirety of the land from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River, or of the nationalistic argument, that Israel won this land in the 1967 war, and if America isn’t giving back Texas to Mexico, why should Israel give back the West Bank to the Palestinians, Israel maintains a military occupation over the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. To frustrate the lives of those under this occupation by hampering freedom of movement, obstructing the building of the Palestinian economy through trade restrictions and bureaucratic red tape and by not allowing the Palestinian government to function as an autonomous body, is a failure of the obligation of a democratic state to provide basic human rights to those under its auspices.
The second argument is a more complex one. Instead of simply walling ourselves off, why don’t we try and build trust with the other side? After all, we are all human beings, and cousins, really, when one considers how both Issac and Ishmael came from Abraham. Rather than leave the West Bank and Gaza to rot in the sun, Israel should support every initiative to build up the infrastructure and economy of the Palestinian territories in order to help create a viable, peaceful state. People who have jobs, who have basic human services such as regular garbage collection and plenty of clean water, who have a sense of pride in their well-functioning government, these are people who will not fire rockets into Israel, who will not sacrifice their bodies to kill club-goers in Tel Aviv or Haifa. These are not people who will take the radical step of voting for Hamas just because the services they will provide are that much less awful than those provided by the Palestinian Authority.
But unfortunately, this is not the state that the West Bank and Gaza find themselves in. Unemployment is very, very high, 25% in the West Bank and close to 50% in Gaza, with unemployment rates among young men disproportionately high. When people are, in fact, employed, they are generally underemployed, earning far less than they should. The amount of doctorate degrees per capita is among the highest in the world in the Palestinian territories, yet it is rockets, and not computers, which are exported. Promising developments do occur, as we learned recently on a trip to the region’s headquarters of the World Bank, but not frequently enough, because it is difficult to do anything in a place that is occupied by another.
The other side might listen to this argument, perhaps for the entirety of it, more likely not, but would be quick with a response in either case. How can we trust these people? These people want to kill us! They want to return to Israel and multiply in numbers so great that we are no longer a Jewish state! And, more than anything, they…are…Arab. You never trust an Arab!
Such blatant racism seems ridiculous, but I can promise that it is rampant here, even among some in the mainstream. There are valid points that are brought up here, though. How can an Israeli trust a Palestinian when it is the Palestinians who started the Intifada? And how can a Palestinian trust an Israeli when it is the Israelis who ransack (and sometimes bulldoze) their houses in seemingly random fashion?
So, then, solving the conflict is a matter of building trust, this much is clear. But when each side of the conflict has elements that are completely unwilling to bend, even a little, such trust seems very far away.
Hello from Jerusalem, where we have been since last Thursday. I apologize for not writing sooner, but it has been a very, very busy period of time here. Here are some highlights:
-Welcoming Shabbat at the Western Wall on Friday evening. The scene is like nothing else in the Jewish world, with the entire wall area filling up with Jews of all types, from everywhere, praying in their own customary ways. The highlight here was a large group of religious IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) soldiers who loudly sang their rallying cry, “Am Yisrael Chai” while dancing in a circle with a smaller circle of American Birthright students in the middle.
-Visiting Yad Vashem, the nation’s memorial to those who died in the Holocaust. I had been to Yad Vashem before, but had forgotten about the most powerful part of the visit, exiting the museum in sight of a breathtaking vista of the land of Israel.
-Travelling to Bethlehem (more on this later) and visiting the West Bank for the first time. In short, I was very impressed by the state of the infrastructure and am hopeful about the future of the region.
-Touring East Jerusalem, including the hotbed of Sheikh Jarrah, and seeing firsthand how the Separation Barrier affects the lives of the Palestinians living behind the wall.
We are driving through the West Bank, on a road called Highway 90, trafficked by Israelis only when it is safe. Of course, safety is relative, and if more of my classmates were awake on the bus instead of napping, the mood might be tense. But Israel is a country in which one is not afraid unless there is reason to be afraid at that moment, and for the moment, all is well.
There are barbed-wire fences on either side of the road. Beyond these fences lies some of the poorest land I have ever seen. The arable, irrigated land in Israel proper is non-existent here, replaced by vast, undulating desert. Jordan is off in the distance on one side. On the other, we pass by the occasional Palestinian village. The small towns look much like their Arab Israeli cousins, except much, much poorer. The level of poverty here is not surprising, but it is striking to see in person.
We just passed a sign for Ariel, the largest Israeli settlement in the West Bank, with almost 20,000 residents. Ariel, like every other Jewish settlement here, is considered illegal by international standards. But even if Israel agreed to define its borders as those determined after the war in 1967, Ariel, firmly inside what would become the Palestinian state, would have to remain, because of its entrenchment and its sheer size. Think about this, and the implications it has for the peace process. Whatever your ideology, the fact is that settlements are a very significant roadblock towards the resolution of the conflict.
Yesterday, we drove from Rosh HaNikra, a beautiful set of grottos where the Mediterranean meets the border between Israel and Lebanon. At Rosh HaNikra one can see the border fence with Lebanon. Except it is a mirage, because as far as the two countries would have it, the fence is not a separation between themselves, but the end of the world. Unless one is driving a car with a United Nations decal on it, one does not begin to approach the border, and certainly not cross it. As far as these two nations would have it, the fact that their two landmasses touch is deliberately forgotten, except when security conditions dictate otherwise.
From Rosh HaNikra, we drove to Kfar Giladi, a kibbutz located almost directly on the same border. Before we arrived at the kibbutz, we drove through Kiryat Shemona, a town which bore the brunt of the Katyusha rockets fired by Hezbollah from Lebanon during the conflict between the two nations several years ago. Kiryat Shemona had 2,000 rockets fall on it, half the total number fired at the time. Yet Kiryat Shemona was far different from Sderot, the town two kilometers from Gaza which I visited last year. In Sderot, which is regularly bombed by Qassam rockets fired by Hamas, the mood of the town was a place on edge, unpleasantly tense. But here, though shelters are omnipresent, no such mood hung in the air. Even at the kibbutz, closer yet to the border, though shelters stood between every bloc of houses, the mood was normal, or whatever normal is there. But then, while visiting a nearby cemetery, we came across the remnants of a Katyusha that had exploded with force, killing twelve Israeli Defense Force reservists who were preparing to deploy into Lebanon.
In Israel, all is normal. Until it is not.
Hello from Haifa, a beautiful port city a little more than an hour north of Tel Aviv. We arrived here on Shabbat, so it was difficult at first to get a sense of how the city works (in Israel, everything shuts down on Shabbat, so it is very, very quiet outside). But the vibe here certainly is more relaxed than in Tel Aviv, which is a nice change.
Haifa is a model of tolerance for the state of Israel. Here, Arabs and Jews live together in relative peace. This would be unthinkable in all but a few places here. From a tourist’s perspective, the mix is seamless. Last night, sitting at a cafe, we were surrounded by both Jewish and Arab tables and the mix seemed as natural as the mix of races does in the United States. But, of course, it is too simple to say that there is no tension between the two groups.
Our speaker in class today was an Arab Israeli professor of law who lectured about minority rights in Israel. Arab Israelis are a kind of lost race, a group that people outside of Israel and the immediate vicinity know little about. When Israel declared its independence in 1948, it offered citizenship to many of the Arabs living within its borders. Of course, some either chose to leave or were kicked out. This is what Arabs refer to as the “nakba,” or “catastrophe,” and was the impetus behind the massive protests a few weeks ago on Israel’s borders (there were smaller protests today to mark the anniversary of the 1967 war). Though the Arabs who remain here today (about 20% of Israel’s population) enjoy a full slate of rights, including the right to vote, the right to political participation, the right to work, and the right to, if they wish, serve in the army (almost none do for obvious reasons), the status of the Israeli Arab today is similar to that of the African American in the 1950s. This is to say that there is an enormous amount of distrust between Arabs and Jews. The question of how to better integrate these people into the population is a hard one. Arabs won’t serve in the army, because they won’t take up arms against their brothers in Palestine. Arabs play on professional Israeli soccer teams, but won’t stand for the national anthem because it speaks of the Jewish homeland. But many Arabs do want to be a part of Israeli society and culture. So the question, then, is how best to break down the barriers that hold these people apart from “mainstream” Israel. It is a very, very difficult question indeed.
A small note; the protests on the Syrian border to commemorate the 1967 war today have remained isolated to that small segment of the country and have not affected anything here, even in Haifa, which is in the north. It just goes to show that in Israel, when something happens, people do not blink twice and keep on living their lives. It’s admirable, and it’s necessary in a place this complicated.
In Israel, no matter how hard you try to avoid it, it never takes long until the Arab-Israeli conflict comes up. In class today, we dove in headfirst, hearing first from a retired IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) colonel, a professor of law and religion, and a renowned Israeli human rights attorney.
The commonality between all three speakers and subjects is the fact that people on all sides of the conflict seem to conveniently forget important facts when they present their arguments. For instance, when the colonel, speaking about why Israel can never make peace with Hamas, said that “unlike Hamas, we don’t throw people off of rooftops when we disagree with them,” he failed to mention the IDF tanks that fired indiscriminately in Gaza, killing scores of innocent civilians. Equally disturbing, when the human rights attorney spoke about the destructive path of the security barrier, isolating Palestinians behind high walls, he forgot to mention the fact that there has not been a suicide bombing in Israel since the barrier’s construction. And while I found the professor of law and religion very balanced, the substance of his lecture, the fact that Israelis unwilling to submit to an Orthodox wedding must travel abroad in order to get married, is almost unthinkable in a country that prides itself on being the only democracy in the region.
The fact is this. Israelis have many, many opinions, this is true. But it is far too easy to express one’s own beliefs, using the facts that support their points of view, without referencing the equally compelling arguments on the other side and the facts behind them. Now, to be sure, Americans can be guilty of this as well. But the fact is that in Israel, until each side of the Arab-Israeli conflict is willing to admit that the other side has an argument, and, as such, is deserving of something, stalemate will continue. It’s a depressing thought, but when you realize that steps, albeit baby ones, have been made towards achieving some level of mutual recognition, there is some light at the end of the very long tunnel. The challenge is in convincing the hardliners on either side to focus on this and not the (very significant) differences. Only then can peace move forward.